Of life and death. Artist Chawky Frenn confronts the viewer

Written by
Christine Hamm
Published on
January 17, 2002

Of Life and Death Artist Chawky Frenn confronts the viewer
By Christine Hamm

One of the arresting canvases in Chawky Frenn's show at The Art Center in Hargate at St. Paul's School in Concord is a self-portrait which he calls "The Scream." It's 6 feet long, nearly 3 feet tall, larger than life-size to accommodate the self-portrait of his head on the left, skull facing him on the right. The two images look at each other, Frenn's veins bulging, both mouths agape, across a void of black. Despite the title, despite the rage, the center of the canvas aches with silence.

Like a 19th century Russian novelist, Frenn's art is about life and death, and how human beings make peace - or don't - with themselves and others in the interim between the two. Frenn doesn't fool around with trivialities.

While his mastery of figurative technique is undeniable (a reviewer in New York Arts Magazine says Frenn's "breathtakingly skilled paintings.took the eye as the royal road to the soul"), Frenn is quick to admit that for him, subject matter is paramount.

There's good reason for that. A native of Lebanon, Frenn was in his early teens when he began to sketch a country in the midst of civil war, "to meditate on feelings that were too hard to talk about." Even after 1981, when he immigrated to Boston at the age of 21, the "burned and decapitated bodies" he saw during his adolescence were not easily forgotten.

When Frenn entered the Massachusetts College of Art, such heavy issues stayed with him. Now a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, Frenn was in Concord last week for the opening of his show which has been touring the country for more than a year. Describing his first ventures on canvas, he told a group of St. Paul's students during a slide lecture that his still lifes were never still. From the beginning, they were laden with ironies - cherubs, skulls, flags and other symbolic elements.

While this show features many of the same images, including one of the Statue of Liberty against a background of skulls, Frenn insists he is not interested in shocking people with his work. "That would be a cheap thrill," he says. Instead, he appeals to the viewer not to stop at appearances.

"I try to take an object and go beyond it," Frenn says. "I want viewers not simply to see a skull and stop and say, 'It's death,' or see a doll's head and stop and say, 'It's broken.' I want them to become engaged with the work, to open up and see the many layers hidden beneath."

The title of Frenn's show, "Ecce Homo," should be fair warning. Like Pontius Pilate when he presented Christ to his accusers, Frenn challenges us to "behold the man," in this case not just the artist but Everyman. Frenn has seen enough of life to know the dichotomy of tenderness and destruction in us all.

At its essence, Frenn's art is a conversation between such opposites - light and darkness, good and evil, male and female, fragility and strength. But ultimately, he says, the last word should be hope.

Frenn's "Homage to Nietzsche" is an example of this. As in "The Scream," it's another self portrait with a skull, and again optimism is hardly its most obvious feature. But as Frenn begins to talk about the work, it's clear there is much more intended than at first meets the eye. Nietzsche's words, "And only where there are graves are there resurrections," drawn lightly on the bottom border, hold the key.

"I try to take tragic subject matter, the brokenness of the human condition, and transform that death into life, to make life sprout out of death," says Frenn. "The elements of decay and new life are interacting inside each human being."

With Frenn, even the shape of the canvas holds meaning. This one is arched like a medieval altarpiece, a reference to centuries of sacred art. Two small allegorical cherubs contemplate the realistic portrayal of the figures in the arch between them.

"What is sacred is not out there," says Frenn, referring to the vigilant angels. "What is sacred is what makes us human."

In a recent review in The New York Times, William Zimmer says that despite such serious props and motifs, Frenn is seldom heavy handed. He is, at heart, Zimmer says, "a showman." Less dramatically, his friend Ian Torrey, who heads St. Paul's art department, calls Frenn "affable." The fact that he is all of these things makes the paradox of his work all the more human.